Saturday, June 23, 2018

Cry No Fear

Over the past few years, local studios have been trying to experiment with different genres. For example, Viva Films tried out found footage horror with last year's Darkroom. This time, with Richard Somes' Cry No Fear, it's a home invasion thriller, but unfortunately the results are quite disappointing.

Kaycee (Donnalyn Bartolome) and Wendy (Ella Cruz) are half sisters. Because of that fact, they aren't exactly the best of friends. During one particularly rainy day, they are targeted by a murderous family and must work together to survive, or else.

To make an effective home invasion thriller, one has to know how to effectively convey the story within a confined space. The thrill comes from the cat and mouse game between invaders and victims, and the terror comes from the loss of safety that a home invasion embodies.  There has to be a sense of claustrophobia to ratchet up the tension, else things fall apart quickly.

In this case, the filmmaking ultimately comes up a bit short. The cinematography largely consists of a lot of extreme closeup shots, whether the scene is supposed to be tense or not. While it helps capture the emotions of the lead characters well enough, it makes certain scenes (like chase scenes) harder to parse, especially without a wider establishing shot. It's too bad that in trying to create a claustrophobic feeling, the film manages to overdo it. The editing also feels muddled and disorganized, making the film even harder to understand.

The film's internal logic is inconsistent, structured poorly, and strains suspension of disbelief. A hand is dislocated, but is more or less normal after a few scenes. There is one particular scene where a dog is killed and decapitated. The head is initially missing, so the protagonists decide to bury the dog's body in the park, which I assume is far from their house (and far from relative safety) because it was their dog's favorite place. And when the dog's severed head shows up in the house a few scenes later, despite the fact that there is a serious threat to their lives lurking outside the house, they decide to go back to the park AGAIN, for the sake of a certain contrivance near the end. Throughout the film, for the sake of a plot device, the characters are made out to be idiots.

And then there's the weird stuff. The film seems to be aiming to titillate and fails spectacularly. In the first half of the film, there seems to be an inordinate amount of attention focused on Donnalyn Bartolome's legs - in fact, the film literally begins with a panning shot of her legs. This is turned up to eleven when a later phone conversation keeps cutting back to her legs instead of her talking on the phone. Patricia Javier is also in the movie, and there just HAD to be a sexy scene with her right in the middle of the film. It does nothing to the plot, and it undoes the effect of some of the scenes directly preceding it. It's gratuitous and distracting.

The glaring missteps in the making of Cry No Fear are highlighted even more considering that another horror film, Hereditary, debuted at the same time, and nails everything Cry No Fear did wrong, in terms of creating tension and claustrophobia through camerawork and editing. Cry No Fear is a prime example of why technical skill and directing should properly complement an inventive concept.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The 1st Istorya ng Pag-Asa Film Festival

June 12, Philippine Independence Day, also marked the gala night of the very first Istorya ng Pag-Asa Festival, a joint project of the Office of the Vice President and the Ayala Foundation. The project started as a photo gallery showcasing the inspiring stories of everyday Filipino men and women as they live their lives with courage and grace. Out of a significant amount of entries, the fifteen finalists were screened during the gala night, with the top three films set to screen in Ayala Cinemas nationwide.

Most of the films were very short (often five to ten minutes in length,) and the stories were varied even though some of the people had similar jobs. What gets me most about the festival is that with our nation in the state it is today, it's nice to have media showing us something hopeful and positive for a change instead of the relentless negativity we experience daily. The festival recognizes that there is something valuable, perhaps even heroic, in ordinary men and women triumphing over adversity..

As for the shorts themselves, here's what I thought about them:

The Climbing Puppeteer is about a man who, through his mountaineering hobby, discovered a bunch of impoverished settlements. He then finds a way to combine his hobby with community service and outreach. It's not bad, and the film does take an interesting turn when he explains the whole puppeteer part.

McLaine is about a problem student that eventually becomes a teacher himself. It's composed of a long dramatization, followed by only a very brief payoff. The story is nice but the execution feels a bit off.

Dealing With Healing is one of two stories that deal with people struggling with mental health issues. it shows that even people that seem outgoing and extroverted can suffer from this condition.  I appreciate the conversation, though I felt it may have downplayed the medical aspect a bit. Stories like these are very important to me, and as our country is getting close to signing a Mental Health Bill of our own, and I hope these kinds of stories guide us into making the right laws.

Ngiti is the second of two stories of people struggling with hard life challenges and mental health issues. I also have the same concerns with this film as I did with the previous one, but I think this is still a story worth telling.

Ang Gahum Sang Daku Nga Handum is about Vejiel, a member of an indigenous tribe in Negros, who became a teacher to help uplift her community. In a short time, the film highlights the challenges these people have to face in terms of cultural attitudes and socioeconomic issues, and it shows that all it takes is a lot of hard work, determination, and the idea that cultural attitudes can be changed for the better.

Alkansiya probably has one of the festival's best concepts: it's about a boy who dives for coins under a bridge in Manila. This is, according to the boy, so that he can be reunited with his mother who lives in the province. The presentation is not as clean as I had expected, but it more or less delivers on its message.

If you've heard of last year's documentary Haunted or the Malaya Lolas in general, the story behind Liham Pagmamahal Para sa Kasalukuyan should be familiar. It is a shorter version of the story told in that documentary, and it serves as both testimony and reminder of the horrors of the past. I believe it's an essential story to tell given that recently, in exchange for political handholding, some people would rather choose to forget these stories.

Liwanag is about a woman, who, despite being blind since birth, decided to become a teacher. She succeeded, and her next goal is to make it into a public school to teach, which would be pretty awesome. The presentation is great and straight to the point.

Gawilan is my favorite of all 15 shorts, and it made it into the top 3. It's about a man with a disability who is also an Olympic swimmer. The presentation is slick and structured really well. I hope you guys can catch it in cinemas.

Overdrive is about a mother who moonlights as an Uber driver. The film is about the filmmaker discovering her and wanting to share her story. Content-wise, that's all the film has, but it's more than enough.

Pamilyang Bernardo is about a family with ectrodactyly, a condition that results in deformities of the hands and feet. Since there is a genetic component to this condition, this particular family has it in two successive generations. The film is about how the family strives to get along with government help and how the youngest member of the family (who does not have the condition) wants to study hard to help the people who raised him despite their disability. The film is very well made and though a more comprehensive treatment of the material would have been nice, it's okay as it is.

Dibuho is about Jhalanie Matuan, a woman who creates wonderful works of art but prefers to live in the street. This could be blown into a full documentary, because I think there's a lot that can be told about this particular story. Dibuho elects to highlight one particular story in Jhalanie's life, and that works to the film's benefit.

Ang Biyahe ni Marlon won best picture in the festival, and it's not hard to see why: it's well made and presented and is genuinely emotionally affecting. It's the story of Marlon, who works as an Uber driver. But Marlon also has Tourette's syndrome, making him prone to motor and vocal tics. He has been judged unfairly because of his condition, but he shows us, through this film, that he continues to live his life for his family with dignity. It's a perfect encapsulation of the concept behind the film festival, and it's worth catching once it comes out in theaters.

Person With This Ability is about Daniel Padillan, who, despite being disabled from the waist down, managed to represent the country in international archery competitions. Compared to the other sports related short in this set, the story is much more expansive, detailing Padillan's life from his early days to his eventual triumphs.

The short with the most unique story is probably Tago, which won second best picture. It's about a jazz cafe that has served as a nurturing space for many Filipino Jazz musicians. As a jazz lover myself, this film is totally my jam as it's slickly presented and it's unique concept helps it stand out above the rest.

for more information about the festival and the individual competitors, you can visit the official Istorya ng Pag-asa website at

Monday, June 11, 2018

Kaala (and Indian movies in the Philippines)

Last week, a movie premiered in Philippine cinemas that went completely under the radar. It didn't show up in the usual places for movie schedules (such as Clickthecity), even up to now. No one in the local film news community has discussed it. Even when I went to the cinema where it was showing, it was conspicuously absent from that day's schedule. But this isn't some small indie movie shown in an arthouse venue or a niche theatre. This is Kaala, one of the year's most anticipated Indian films, and for the past few days it has enjoyed modest pop-up screenings in large mall cinemas such as SM Southmall. 

Here in the Philippines, Indian film distribution is tailored towards the large and growing Indian expat population living in the country. Indians love movies, perhaps more than any other film culture in the world, and as nice as foreign productions can get, there's nothing quite like something from home. These screenings are organized by small businesses and fellow members of the community and movie schedules and information are disseminated within these communities, often through social media - so to know the schedule of these films, one has to know someone from these communities. Often, large scale or highly anticipated movies are screened - in the past year or so, films such as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017) and Padmavaat (2018), among others, have been screened here.

In this case, the movie in question is the latest film from Superstar Rajinikanth, Kaala. To readers who have no idea who Rajinikanth is, the man is a legend in South Indian cinema. He has appeared in more than a hundred films. He is probably best known outside India for his role in Enthiran (a.k.a. Robot; 2010), a science fiction film that also starred Aishwarya Rai. His movies typically enjoy packed, often sold out screenings in South India, and his contemporary film roles are often (but not always) (super)heroic, larger-than-life working class men who fight for the oppressed and downtrodden. Kaala is his second collaboration with director P.A. Ranjith, after the huge success of 2016's Kabali, a darker than usual Rajinikanth film where he plays an old gangster.

Kaala shares some similarities with Kabali in plot structure, but is overall a completely different film: in Kaala, the titular character is an old gangster who serves as the de facto king of the Dharavi slums in Mumbai. Dharavi is the largest slum area in the world, and was featured prominently in such films as Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008.) Kaala helps the local populace live their lives with dignity as the government is either unhelpful or indifferent. Kaala, with the help of his extended family, soon gets into a fight with local politician Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), as the latter seeks to redevelop Dharanvi, but on his terms (and to the detriment of the people). The appearance of an old flame, Zareena (Huma Qureshi) seeks to complicate things even further.

What follows is an interesting take on the South Indian action thriller that quickly evolves during the second half into something overtly political. While there are enough wacky action setpieces to satiate fans' wishes (of note is the pre-interval sequence where Kaala fights off a number of people armed only with an umbrella), the action takes a backseat to the film's political message - that of land ownership, increasing class divides, the rights of the urban poor, and the value of community organizing. This is nothing new, as Rajinikanth has often discussed political issues in his films before, such as when his 2007 film Sivaji The Boss talked about black money. At one point in this film, a character introduces himself using Rajinikanth's real life name and talks about helping the poor help themselves, and I couldn't help but wonder if this was Rajinikanth himself speaking through the character or something else entirely. Many of Rajinikanth's films use his extremely expansive reach and influence to try to initiate societal change, and at the very least that's something worth celebrating.

The film is relatively serious and does not have much of a comedic streak, save for a couple of moments where Rajinikanth himself does the heavy comedic lifting. It also takes a while to get going, spending most of its first half developing the world and the characters before getting into serious dramatic territory during the last stretch. The heavily rap and hip hop-flavored soundtrack can be quite catchy, especially the title theme song.

Color plays an important role in the film, and serves as Kaala's most important visual motif. It contrasts Kaala's black with Hari's white, making a point that those who are perceived as bad aren't always so, and those who are perceived as good and pure may often be worse. It is in the actions of people that true character can be discerned, not through outside appearances.

By the end of the film, the message and the persona become more than the man himself, culminating in a spectacular sequence of light, color, music and dance that is artfully abstract and open to interpretation. While it does feel a bit abrupt, leaving several plot threads hanging or simply cut, it is, at the very least, fascinating.

What elevates the experience of watching Kaala for me the most is watching it with a receptive Indian audience. I've watched Indian films mostly by myself through streaming services, DVDs from who knows where or through Youtube, so it was nice to watch a film like this with an audience that knows what they're watching. I may have been the only Filipino in the whole theater, but I was cheering along with the crowd whenever Rajinikanth had a cool fight scene (there aren't a lot, but Rajinikanth isn't getting any younger) and I cheered whenever he said something awesome (which is often.) That experience in itself is worth the price of admission.

Ultimately Kaala may not be Rajinikanth's best film, but it's a treat for fans, and is almost worth watching for that ending scene alone.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story)

Irene Villamor's Sid & Aya begins with an overhead shot of intersections, which will become one of the film's visual motifs. Because it is in these crosswalks and intersections where people meet, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes once then never again. 

Sid (Dingdong Dantes) works as a stock broker. He's nearing the top of the financial food chain, often screwing over co-workers for his own gain. When he meets Aya (Anne Curtis), he approaches her on similar terms: he offers her money in exchange for her companionship, a scenario that on the surface shares similarities with Gary Marshall's seminal Pretty Woman (1990). Sid's offer is done out of both loneliness and curiosity. But Aya has her own wants and needs, and she's playing the game too for her own reasons. 

What results is not quite a love story, but the means to get to something quite like it. Villamor has mastered the art of the meet-cute; in her previous film, Meet Me in St. Gallen, the meet-cute forms the center of the story, while in this film, the meet-cute is extended to a number of interactions that fleshes out Sid and Aya's relationship and makes any potential heartbreak all the more effective. And like her previous film, the last act of the film displaces both characters in an unfamiliar place, symbolic of the growing disconnect in their relationship borne from their respective life situations.

It's evident as Sid and Aya's relationship grows that they are constrained by their different socioeconomic backgrounds, which inform their viewpoints and life decisions. Sid has never lived for anyone else but himself, and his life (and his attitude towards relationships) are more open and liberal. Aya has spent all her life living in the service of others, and her filial responsibilities are  a major part of the film's eventual conflict. Romances that hinge upon socioeconomic inequality are a staple of Filipino storytelling; one cannot count the number of local romantic stories involving a rich person marrying someone born from poverty. But Sid & Aya is one of the few works of fiction that grounds that notion in reality, eschewing the fantasy wish fulfillment treatment. Their ultimate decisions - and their character arcs - are more realistic and relatable as a result.

To be honest, it's hard to articulate the appeal of this film. There's something in how it's constructed and crafted, in how the chemistry between the two leads work so well, in how their lives mirror ours in more ways than one, that I just love.

The film is admittedly not perfect. A particular story arc peters off with little to no resolution, for example. But those are minor quibbles in what is otherwise a remarkable, strangely appealing film. I fell in love with Sid & Aya from the start, and I think it's one of the year's best so far, featuring a director at the top of her game.

Ang Misyon: A Marawi Siege Story was apparently made by people

...and that's surprising, because for a moment there I thought most of the cast was replaced by robots.

The Battle of Marawi was a costly and devastating conflict that took the lives of many brave soldiers and civilians. It's a rich source of conceptual material, especially for a film that aims to shine a spotlight on the many acts of heroism and valor that both soldiers and common people have done for the service of their country and home. In that respect, Ang Misyon: A Marawi Siege Story is borne from good intentions.

However, good intentions are often not enough. It doesn't exactly show us a tale of heroism in the midst of battle - instead, it shows us the life of a terrorist sympathizer whose motivations are left ambiguous to the very end.

Sajid (Martin Escudero) is a nurse who works in a hospital that tends to wounded soldiers. He encounters a wounded soldier and the two engage in a conversation that feels more like the scriptwriter talking to himself rather than realistic dialogue between two human beings. After a few vague flashbacks, it turns out that Sajid's father was killed by (((someone))), and that leads him to take up a position with an ISIS-linked group. He isn't even secretive about it; his room is filled with books that scream "ISIS" and he watches training and propaganda videos out in the open. Excuse me if I can't see the heroism in this tale at all. It tries to explain the roots of extremism, but does so poorly.

Putting that aside, the rest of the movie is pretty garbage. The characters in this movie don't act like human beings, and 90% of the actors in this movie have the acting range of a cardboard cutout. The film feels preachy and didactic. A woman is given an engagement ring in one scene (curiously, her fiancee to be doesn't even open the ring box, he shoves the unopened box in her direction), and with the bluntest affect and delivery ever, she states that she is surprised. There are tears in her eyes but that's obviously visine or something the staff dropped in her eyes to simulate the act of crying, probably because robotic technology hasn't advanced to the point of artificial tear ducts yet. Add the fact that after giving his fiancee the ring, the man talks about how much debt he had to accrue to acquire the ring, which is the most romantic thing ever.

In another scene, a man dictates the five pillars of Islam (probably from Wikipedia) to his son, who has been Muslim since birth. Our heroic protagonist (who is married) is shown to be flirting with a coworker, for no other reason than to have an extra character during a later dramatic scene. Martin Escudero tries his best to mimic a regional accent, but it doesn't work if the rest of his co-actors speak straight Tagalog. The filmmakers have obviously hired a number of non-actors in this film, and they are terribly directed, often looking like they are reading off cue cards. As for the rest of the movie, the music is bizarrely jarring, the editing feels too stretched out, and the action scenes in this film are poorly staged, tepid and boring.

As a Muslim, I don't know if I should be offended or not. At least the film's intentions were good... I hope. What's sad is that at the end of the film there is genuinely good footage of the men and women who protected our country during the siege. I would have loved a story about that, but unfortunately that film is not this one.

Ang Misyon: A Marawi Siege story is a horror story about the dangers of deforestation. Because if you have this much wood in the actors' performances, a lot of trees have presumably died for that, and that's a problem.

So Connected

Karter (Jameson Blake) works in a small company that makes Youtube videos. When Karter's phone gets stolen, he tracks it down and discovers that it is now in the possession of Trisha (Janella Salvador), who is otherwise a complete stranger. Karter becomes smitten with Trisha, which ultimately leads to him planning to meet her in person.

While watching So Connected, I found myself drawing comparisons with this film and Laxamana's earlier Instalado (2017), where technology is a tool used by people for both good and bad things. So Connected wears the disguise of a romantic comedy, but in truth it asks deeper questions about how we use social media today and how the personal information we choose to share can push ethical boundaries. It's greatest asset is that it provides a neutral viewpoint of these two characters. Like previous reviews have stated, the film does not judge them for their actions; instead, it understands that these actions are the result of the world that has shaped them. Karter's sister acts as his conscience, and the folly of his actions are soon exposed..

In many ways the film also acts as a critique of social media, as it turns out both Karter and Trisha have been shaped by social media in negative ways. It sheds light on the fact that while social media can be curated, it often lacks context, and that fact creates an environment where a culture of shame can thrive. This is one of the first local films to tackle that particular issue. While Karter does get to know Trisha through the photos she takes on her smartphone, it is hardly a complete picture of her life, as one's online presence is often carefully curated, leaving out the bad stuff in favor of the good. Karter may know Trisha's favorite food, but he doesn't know about her family situation, or her true inner thoughts about her life. The microscope of social media is ultimately superficial, and is often based only on the people we want to be instead of who we really are.

And like other films like Her (2013), So Connected shows us a world of lonely people only wishing to make a connection with someone else. It is one of the greatest ironies in the world of social media that while people create these large online personal spaces, they end up being more isolated from each other than ever. So Connected might not exactly be a love story, but it shows us how lasting  connections are truly formed between people - through a gradual, mutual process of knowing one another.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Cinephilia on the Go: Singapore Edition

I've recently been to Singapore as part of a work related conference, and a tiring conference schedule is no obstacle to the most determined cinephile. It also isn't an obstacle to a hyperactive gastrointestinal tract, but that's a story for another day.

Singapore, owing to its multicultural nature, is also a cinematic melting pot: aside from the run of the mill Hollywood movies, Singapore cinemas also show Chinese films from either Hong Kong or the Mainland, Malay films from either Malaysia or Indonesia, Indian films, mostly in Tamil or Telugu,  films from other territories like South Korea and Japan, and homegrown Singaporean films both mainstream and independent.

Singapore cineplexes, in my experience, are often integrated into malls like the Philippines. Tickets in some box offices can be bought and paid in advance, and some, like the Golden Village moviehouse in Plaza Singapura, are completely automated. The average price of a ticket with no special discounts is around S$9.50 (~370 php), though more fancy options exist such as IMAX, 3D, and VIP lounges.

I saw four films during my short trip to this island nation. So how did it go? Let's find out.

The mid to late eighties constituted a seismic shift towards democracy in several countries: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the fall of the Romanian dictatorship during the same year and the People Power Revolution right here in the Philippines, to name a few. 1987: When the Day Comes, is about one such revolution in South Korea: the June Struggle, a series of demonstrations that led to the present-day government of South Korea.

In a way, this film can be viewed as a companion piece and follow-up to contemporary film A Taxi Driver, also a film that dealt with the various acts of dissent that eventually led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. But as A Taxi Driver dealt with its story in smaller, personal terms, at a time where Chun's reign was just beginning, 1987 deals with the story in broader terms. It splits its time between several characters, outlining small acts of defiance that build over time.  It is a fire that foments slowly but surely. While major deaths (both of student activists) constitute both the beginning and end of the film, it is the smoldering sense of defiance among the people that creates the momentum that finally triggers the revolution. As such the film may not have a central character focus, rather, it serves more as a snapshot of that particular time. And the end of the film - a scene where our audience surrogate stands with the people as the demonstrations hit their peak - is just the beginning of a long and painful process towards true democracy, as the democratic reforms started by the revolution would not truly bear fruit until a few years later.

The same year this film was released, South Koreans removed Park Geun-hye from office on accusations of corruption, the will of the people manifesting itself in full force. In South Korea, the spirit of democracy lives on, while tragically, other countries who experienced the same shift towards democracy have forgotten the same lessons.

Love, Simon plays itself out like your usual fun, entertaining, teen story. Simon (Nick Robinson) is your regular high school student counting the days until the end of high school. But one day, he reads a blog post from a fellow student from his school who confesses that he is secretly gay. This catches Simon's attention, because he too is secretly gay, and the two begin an unlikely friendship while they struggle with coming out to the ones they love and their own teen issues.

It's quite interesting how normal Love, Simon feels, and that may be its greatest asset. I probably could not envision such a film existing a decade ago, but here we are, and the result is satisfying and at times awfully sweet. In a way, the world of Love, Simon is an ideal world that I reckon a lot of people would love to live in: a place where almost everyone is understanding and empathetic, where parents are the most progressive and loving parents a kid can have, where a school body is overly supportive and caring towards their own. It's still a far cry from the world we have now, but works like this in mainstream media that try to establish a new normal in the hopes of reaching that ideal world is a wonderful thing.

The film does suffer from a couple of nagging issues: the relationship between Simon and his anonymous friend Blue is underdeveloped, a casualty of the story's structure. Blue's anonymity works to the film's detriment in this case, though it can't be helped. Love stories have been made between people who have never met in person, good love stories even. In this case, I didn't find the love story to be that convincing, with the relationship between Simon and his friend Blue hinging on a mutual understanding (kinship?) and little else. But despite that, Love Simon is a fun watch, especially for teens and young adults.

The story behind Dukun is an interesting one: it is loosely based on the story of Mona Fandey, a pop singer turned witch doctor who was convicted of killing a local politician during a pagan ceremony gone wrong. She was later executed for this crime. The film was delayed for ten years after it was completed, perhaps to distance itself from real life events.

Dukun is a strange amalgamation of courtroom drama and horror film, one that feels dated even by 2007 standards. The film suffers from rudimentary CGI effects and spotty acting. As a horror, the feel is similar to contemporary mainstream horror movies here in the Philippines, though instead of using Catholicism as a defense against evildoers, this Malaysian flick defends its good guys against paganism by the virtues of Islam. As an outsider looking in, that particular cultural  aspect is fascinating. But the horror itself is not really scary at all, the main antagonist's facial contortions ending up more wacky than terrifying. I'm beginning to think it's a cultural thing.

That's the least of the film's problems. For one, it's languidly paced, and with the scares being so lethargic, I found myself struggling to stay awake. The film suffers from a tendency to meander and go on weird tangents. Dukun tries to impart a message advocating piety and religiosity, but I'm not sure if that message is delivered well, if at  all. The ending left me mostly unsatisfied with the result.

And finally, a Singaporean film to finish out today's post. Wonder Boy is a fictionalized biography of singer songwriter Dick Lee. Lee is well known in Singapore, especially in the late eighties and early nineties. I don't know who would serve as a local counterpart... maybe Jose Mari Chan?

Lee's contribution to the pop music scene in Singapore is important - in a milieu where pop music consisted of covers and had to adhere to proper English, holding on to a sort of colonial mentality, Lee's songs used Singlish and were about things Singaporeans could relate to.

The film concentrates more on Lee's early days, when he was just a schoolboy struggling to break out and do his own thing. Here, his character seems to be intended to be portrayed as a misunderstood genius, but he comes off as more insufferable than sympathetic. This fictional version of Dick Lee is, to put it mildly, a bit of a dick.

In any case, there are a couple of aspects of Lee's coming of age that I found fascinating. First, there's a bandmate named Mark that Lee is almost smitten with; there's a sexual tension between the two characters in certain scenes that I didn't foresee. Also, Lee's descent into the hedonistic underworld of seventies Singapore shows a side of the country that outsiders rarely see in contemporary media.

Once Lee mellows after those tumultuous school days, it gets better, though sadly there isn't enough of it once it gets going. Wonder Boy is fun as it is, though it takes a while to warm up to the main character.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Citizen Jake

Mike de Leon's first film in almost two decades begins with its titular character standing in front of us: he is Jake Herrera, son of a powerful senator who was a Marcos crony during the time of Martial Law. He lays out the kind of movie that we are about to watch, almost like a confession. This will be a story depicted using the elements of cinema, we are told. And while the final product may not tell us anything we don't already know, it tells us a lot about the person behind the film.

Citizen Jake feels like a mishmash of different things - documentary, murder mystery, political cinema, and the type of film that was popular in de Leon's heyday - a broad family melodrama that is distinctly Filipino. Yet there's something about the film that feels off. There are photomontages from out of nowhere - introducing characters that have yet to be formally introduced. There are documentary style interludes that both provide context and also distraction. The fourth wall is broken multiple times. Certain talking points are made again and again, making the film feel like a rant or sermon instead of the subtler cinematic experiences we are used to. From the start, during Jake's introductory 'confession,' we are made aware of the film's artificiality, a Brechtian convention made to distance ourselves from the work, allowing us to think critically about its themes and the lessons it tries to impart. Brecht's works inform how the film operates: the relation between space and actor, the film's form, the film's way of characterizing its players; in fact, the film uses a lot of conventions from that particular type of political theater. The ultimate effect, however, is mixed. The film will not be to everyone's tastes, but at the very least it creates discourse.

In my opinion, the film works best when it's not being didactic - it makes good points about the relationship between friends of different social classes, there's also subtle commentary about how hypermasculine our culture is, and there are jabs at proper police procedure (which none of the cops in this film seem to follow). But there are shortcomings. There's a side plot involving Jake's missing mother that doesn't really go anywhere, which is disappointing given that her existence informs a lot of Jake's decisions. The decision to cast Atom Araullo, a journalist and rookie actor, as Jake, mostly works, but at times his acting prowess leaves much to be desired.

The film is an indictment of societal ills, as Jake's crusade to find justice is hampered time and time again by entrenched systems of corruption and abuse. It is not solely a polemic about the Marcoses, as it talks about corruption in a broader sense, in that these systems are cyclical and seemingly endless. It will not come as a surprise to many, and it will not shake the convictions of any oligarchs currently (or, still) in power. But in the world of Citizen Jake, as well as in the real world, silence is the ultimate sin. Silence perpetuates corrupt systems and allows injustice. Silence allows malicious people, and their malicious children, and their children's children, to continue to stay in power. It might sound tired and repetitive, but there's merit in repetition, because we as a society are far too prone to forget the lessons of history.

And there's a word that I regularly hear whenever this film is discussed: complicity. Jake the character is fully aware of the role he plays in the continuation of these corrupt systems, as he is shown to work within its bounds: we are all Citizen Jake. In another, metafictional sense, it holds a different meaning altogether. I cannot help but draw comparisons between this film and another piece of political cinema due to make its way into theaters in two days: Lav Diaz's Ang Panahon ng Halimaw. Here are two masters of the craft, looking back at a long and storied career, and perhaps wondering, 'have I done enough?' De Leon's films in the 70's and 80's were powerful works of cinema, many of them ahead of their time. They were protest songs; works that rebelled against injustice and oppression. But, after 2000, nothing.


The ultimate sin.

And here we are, at a precarious state, where we may lose the very freedoms that our predecessors worked so hard to achieve. The cycle of oppression goes on, whether we stay silent or not. But, as Francis Edward Sparshott relates to us in his book, The Theory of the Arts, "the judgement of history is unknowable and in a sense, indeterminate since fruitfulness can be denied and lost." It is folly to claim clairvoyance; there is a ridiculousness in conclusively saying whether these works will have any lasting impact now or in the future, and I think (or at least, I'd like to believe) these two directors know that. As artists, their only recourse is to make their art and let history decide. That's why in the last sequence of this film, I do not see Jake Herrera, journalist - I see Mike De Leon, filmmaker, telling us: I will not stay silent. This is the art I have chosen to create.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

UP Thesis Films at the UP Film Center! ('17-'18, 2nd Sem)

In my spare time (like, in between jobs) I took a little detour to the UP Film Center to watch a handful of short films produced and directed by undergraduate students. It's a nice way to relax, the film center is air conditioned, and it's free! That's a lot of incentive, not to mention the fact that some of tomorrow's most talented local filmmakers will be taking their first steps here.

Sometimes I feel I'm running myself into the ground watching movies during every spare moment of my time, but what can I say. #YOLO.

Here are all six of the films I saw during my short time at the Film Center:

Sa Among Agwat is probably my favorite narrative film of the bunch. It's about a family on the verge of a major change, spurred by social and financial difficulties. It's a concept that's been explored before, but the level of filmmaking on display really elevates it beyond that concept. The film is generally well shot and the music hits all the right emotional notes.

Dimteng ti Lawag is about a young girl and a mother dealing with the disappearance of a loved one. It depicts bereavement in a very different manner, one that, according to the film's director, is commonplace in the fishing community where the film takes place. Though the film stars talented actors such as Art Acuna and Angeli Bayani, the performance of the child actor is particularly noteworthy. It's very subtle in its treatment, and that's something a number of other films can learn from.

Diwasanag is an animated film about... well, you tell me. It's pretty abstract, and it's better treated as an experience instead of something more tangible. The animation quality is tops considering a bunch of students did this.

Isa sa Sanlibong Alitaptap also deals with mourning, and fireflies serve as a motif this time around. But the film kind of loses focus halfway through, and the motif is too subtle to be picked up (it was said during the q and a portion that fireflies were visible even in the earlier parts of the film, but I didn't pick that up visually at all.) To its credit, the film is relatively well shot, especially during the final sequence.

The Good, The Bad and the Fabulous is the sole documentary of the six films that I watched. It's also my favorite film of the bunch, and it's now one of my favorite wrestling documentaries as well. It chronicles three female wrestlers from PWR (Pinoy Wrestling Revolution), exploring their individual motivations, aspirations and wrestling history. At a meta level, it breaks kayfabe and explores how wrestling is as much persona and performance as it is sport. This is a film that can find much traction in festivals, in my opinion, and it's a concept that can be expanded into something feature length.

And finally, Bangkang Papel has a clever conceit, in that real world math problems aren't going to be about a guy that steals forty cakes, but about a mom struggling to support her child from day to day with a meager catch of fish. The film, however, suffers from a bit of tonal dissonance: the film seems to be at odds with itself, with the music evoking some sort of exaggerated satire, while the rest of the film is relatively serious in comparison.

That's all I had time to watch. It was generally a positive experience, and I look forward to seeing more films at the center when they come. Till next time~